Unearthly, transparent and beautiful—and also exceedingly delicate. The spotted comb jelly is so fragile a creature, just waving your hand through the water could destroy it. Now, for the first time anywhere, animal care staff at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have managed to culture these fragile, scintillating creatures.
The species, known scientifically as Leucothea pulchra—Latin for “beautiful sea goddess”—is “a clear football-shaped gelatinous animal” says Wyatt Patry, a senior aquarist who’s worked at the Aquarium for 11 years, and who led the culturing effort this winter.
“They’re ctenophores, not true jellyfish,” Wyatt notes. “Instead of stinging cells they have sticky cells called colloblasts.”
The spotted comb jelly’s common name refers to orange “knobs” or spots along its body.
“We don’t know what those do but we suspect they aid in prey capture,” Wyatt says. Two sticky tentacles trail behind it, acting like fishing lines.
“They also have cool whips called ‘auricles’ that they wave around—undulate—in this really cool slow wave motion, probably driving food into their mouths,” he says.
Mola mola are peculiar fish. Shaped like enormous shovels, they can grow to almost 10 feet long. They live throughout the global ocean and sometimes float languidly on their sides at the water’s surface. As charming as they are bizarre, they’re frequent, though temporary, visitors to the living collection at Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Because they get so large and grow so fast, molas, also known as ocean sunfish, can’t be kept permanently in the Open Sea exhibit. Senior Aquarist Michael J. Howard and his team collect molas in Monterey Bay, but return them to the wild once they reach about 6.5 feet long.
Monterey Bay Aquarium is, to our knowledge, the only public aquarium in the world that returns exhibit molas to the wild. Until recently, no one knew what became of the individuals after their release.
With the help of colleagues and electronic tracking tags, Michael is starting to get some answers, adding important data to a sparse body of knowledge about the mola’s life history and habits.